Snooker: The Beckham of the Baize? 'It's better than being called ugly - I love it, me'

The Interview - Paul Hunter: Snooker's blond bombshell has ridden the tabloid tiger and emerged unscathed. Nick Townsend meets a man steeled for Sheffield

One day, the Prolific Potter, the Man With The Magic Cue, may acquire an epithet without a hint of sexual ambiguity attached to it. Probably not for a while, even if Paul Hunter finally secures the prize he covets most: the Embassy World Championship, which began yesterday on home territory at The Crucible in Sheffield. The Hunter has become fair game where the tabloids are concerned, ever since his mid-match coupling with girlfriend Lindsey Fell - whom he marries next month - became the catalyst for him claiming the 2001 Masters title at Wembley, an act which duly entered sporting folklore.

The Yorkshireman, who would probably appreciate being acknowledged more for his snooker prowess than his perceived sexual athleticism, learnt a lesson that day: never underestimate the public's prurient fascination with what goes on in other people's bedrooms. In this case, a hotel bedroom adjacent to the Wembley Conference Centre, with defeat beckoning in his first major final.

"Normally, I don't see Linds at a tournament. But she had come down for the match," he recalls. "Walking back to the hotel, I was 6-2 down [to Fergal O'Brien] and I was really gutted. I wasn't playing at all well. My manager [Brandon Parker] said, 'We're going to Plan B'. I just started grinning. I knew exactly what he meant. I wasn't really in the mood. But I had to do something to deal with the tension. It was just a 10-minute quickie, but I felt great afterwards." He proceeded to win comfortably.

The following day the success of "Plan Bonk" decorated many a front page. "Snooker hadn't been there for years," he adds. "And I've got to say I enjoyed the attention." Yet, you suggest, surely he must harbour some regrets at revealing the most intimate of details to public gaze? He looks puzzled. "I was 21 at the time. I'm only 25 now," he says. "People my age do that. It's not dirty. It's part of life."

Hunter, a character whom it would be difficult to dislike, is disarmingly forthcoming. The blond green-baize bombshell, who could double for David Beckham (at least from a distance under subdued Madrid nightclub lighting) plays the fame game as deftly as he does snooker. "If people see me as a good-looking lad, successful in what he does, and I'm compared to someone like Beckham, it's got to be a compliment, hasn't it? It's better than being called ugly, I suppose. No, I love it, me."

In truth, when one of your closest confidants has long been Jimmy White, you soon comprehend the perils of performing under media scrutiny, albeit that many of the problems in the Whirlwind's case have been self-inflicted. Only last month, the veteran was charged with being in possession of Class A drugs, although, strangely, such a distraction did not prevent him from defeating Hunter in last weekend's final of the Players Championship in Glasgow.

"I was really happy for Jimmy," says the younger man. "He hadn't won one for, what, 12 years? We were having a few drinks afterwards, and he said: 'Thanks for letting me win.' I didn't, of course. I was trying my hardest. In fact, I played really well to get to the final, and now I will take that confidence through with me this week."

We meet at the sports and fitness club on the outskirts of Huddersfield where Hunter practises. It is just six miles from Leeds, where he was born and still lives. Clad in T-shirt and jeans, he is a slighter figure than his television persona would suggest, and even younger-looking, with the cherubic looks of a boy-band member. You can comprehend why he is so beloved by the likes of Loaded magazine. He is a sportsman and a winner, but still "A Lad". And he is loaded. Well, relatively so anyway.

"We are not a rich family. Just from a council estate in Leeds. That's where my parents [Alan and Christine] still live." You ask, somewhat impudently, whether he had considered buying them a new house in appreciation of their support? "No, that's my dad's job," he retorts. "That's what fathers should do. I did have a BMW convertible which I gave to my dad, and I paid for my mum to go on a couple of holidays. But I don't think they'd want to take it [his money] off me unless I was a multi-millionaire."

Hunter first put cue to ball when he was aged three, on a table given to him as a Christmas present. His father first took him to a snooker hall when he was nine, and beat him 3-0. "When I was 11, I had made my first century break," he says. "I thought: 'I'd better take this game up', and by the time I was 14 I persuaded my parents to take me out of school so that I could concentrate on it. The game came very naturally to me and that has made me quite an attacking player. I don't think anyone would say that I am boring. That's what I have learnt off Jimmy White, watching him over the years."

He also soon acquired another of White's habits. An appreciation of alcohol. "I remember I won the Regal Welsh Open in '98 and the prize money was 60 grand. I thought that was going to happen quite regularly. So I wasn't practising. I was just going out, getting pissed. I was even drinking at tournaments. It got to the point where I was at the table, but I didn't want to be there, because I was shaking - from the drinking. Normally, you can't wait to get to the table and you want the other player to miss. I wanted them to pot everything because I didn't want to be at the table. It was a horrible feeling."

He continues: "Eventually, my mum and dad sat me down and said, 'Why are you wasting what you've got?' I couldn't disagree. I knew I had to stop what I was doing. Well, that's not true. I didn't stop it. I just had to do it at the right time. Now I try not to have a drink for at least a week before a tournament."

Though not exactly a contender for the Salvation Army's Teetotaller of the Year award - his pre-match preparations include "a quick vodka, that's allowed" - the moderation, and timing, of his consumption has brought its rewards. Three Masters victories have ensued: the one famously acquired in 2001, followed by 2002 and earlier this year. And all with the same inter-match method of relaxation?

"Only in the finals," he says, with a smile. "I was 6-2 down again this year in the final, but this time to Ronnie [O'Sullivan], and Lindsey and I went back to the hotel. I was laying on the bed, and I said, 'You know what we've got to do'. She had a grin on her face. She knew exactly what I meant. And it worked again. Weird."

By next month he could boast the double: a World Championship trophy plus a trophy wife. Well, perhaps we had better not label the Mrs Hunter-to-be as that. Three years his senior, Lindsey is very much her own woman. A beauty consultant, she runs her own business in Leeds. Their wedding, in the Caribbean, will be attended by around 30 family and friends, including his best mate on the circuit, Matthew Stevens. "We have been engaged three years, so why not?" is how he explains the decision. "She's great for me. When I win, she brings me back down. When I lose, she makes me feel better; makes me feel relaxed."

Yet, in the wake of the Beckham revelations, is he certain he can resist similar temptations? "Oh, I've had the kiss-and-tell stories about me already, and it doesn't bother me," he says. "There was one girl, but it was years ago. I'm not ashamed of it and Lindsey's fine, because I didn't even know her then. It's an occupational hazard. I've told her that. But Lindsey and I are strong. We'll be able to deal with anything like that quite easily."

For the next fortnight, the World Championship (his opening game, against John Parrott, is not until Wednesday) will command Hunter's undivided attention. Last year, he was agonisingly close to an appearance in the final, only to be denied by Ken Doherty.

"Knowing that I was 15-9 up and only needed two frames in the final session, and then getting beat... I was just so shocked. A snooker match has never hurt me like that. I put my cue down for three months, went on holiday, and came back fresh. Now I am playing some great snooker, and there is no reason why it can't go on. The main person to beat is probably [Ronnie] O'Sullivan. He's won the Order of Merit this year, which says in black and white that he's been the best player, though you can't rule out [Stephen] Hendry."

Hunter adds: "I can't wait to walk through that curtain again. The Embassy is the one everyone wants. Even Jimmy White, who's been playing 20-odd years, he hasn't won it. I feel as though I know that I'll win it. When, I don't know. How, I don't know. In what year, I don't know. But I'll do it."

Maybe this year, given the form he is in. And, who knows? Headlines like Great Balls Of Fire, where Hunter is concerned, may just revert back to just the most innocent of connotations.

BIOGRAPHY: Paul Hunter

Born: 14 October 1978 in Leeds.

Marital status: Engaged to Lindsey Fell.

Turned pro: 1995.

Career prize money: £1.2m.

World ranking: 8. Previous rankings: 9th (2003), 9th (2002), 14th (2001), 12th (2000), 24th (1999).

Ranking victories: 3 - Regal Welsh (1998, 2002), British Open (2002).

Other significant victories: Masters (2001, '02, '04).

Highest break: 143 (China Open, 2002).

Also: England international junior, reached final of English Amateur (1995).

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Biggest disappointment: Losing 17-16 to Ken Doherty in semi-finals of 2003 World Championship, after leading 15-9.

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